A NEW MAIL-ORDER catalog always puts me in a mood of eager anticipation. But lately my enthusiasm is too often soured by the vaguely disturbing blandness of the common names printed under the pictures. Even more disturbing is their sameness: star tulips, starflowers, star lilies, mountain lilies, mountain bells, alpine rosy bells, golden bells, satin bells, fairy bells, fairy lilies.
And that’s just bulbs. Perennials and vines are almost as bad, and annuals (at least the newer introductions) are even worse. The larger problem is that these are not genuine common names–names bestowed spontaneously by some anonymous person, then absorbed into general use because their aptness, wit, or insight struck a responsive chord. The names I’ve been reading lately reek of carefully researched sales appeal.
Common names, unlike brand names, cannot just be decreed. They can only percolate into the language over time, through widespread and virtually unstoppable use of them. Take the worts, for instance–lungwort, spiderwort, soapwort, St. John’s wort, and several dozen more such names, many or them still in use. 1 he tact that wort predates the English language (it is the Anglo-Saxon word for “plant”) gives some idea of the staying power of truly common names. Linnaeus himself immortalized many of these, naming lungwort Pulmonaria, soapwort Saponaria, and so on.
At one time, knowing a plant by its common name was literally a matter of life and death. Fleabane and bugbane (Erigeron and Cimicifuga spp.) were reasonably safe to handle, being toxic only to small insects, but henbane (Hyosycamus niger, a weed with properties similar to belladonna) required more caution: it was deadly to domestic fowl and could cause convulsions in humans. And as its name implies, wolfbane (Aconitum spp.) was–and still is–toxic enough to kill a large, vigorous animal (including a man).
Many other common names tell of a plant’s practical application. Knitbone (Symphytum spp.) contains a large amount of calcium, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a medically proven remedy for migraine and scouring rushes (Equisetum hyemale) are chock full of abrasive silica.
No more concocted “common” names, pleads Carol Hall
Still other common names reflect simple but direct observations of everyday surroundings. Few of us now live, as we all once did, in intimate as-sociation with fawns, trout, lambs, pheasants, cranes, or foxes. But we know this is to our infinite loss–that’s why we cling to such names as fawn lilies and trout lilies, lamb’s ears, pheasant’s eye daffodils, cranesbills, and foxtail lilies.
But our biggest loss, if we continue to allow marketing gurus to dictate “common names” to us, will be the names that somehow express the inexpressible. Could any market research produce names such as wake robin (Trillium spp.), farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) or even morning glory (Ipomoea spp.)? Could a dozen sales departments come anywhere close to calling all many-rayed flowers day’s eyes (daisies) because their petals close at night in sleep? Would they even notice such a simple, all-important thing?
It would seem self-evident that genuinely common plant names can arise only from experiences or insights held in common. Results range from shoot-from-the-hip pithiness (cast-iron plant, mother-in-law’s tongue) to puckish whimsy (blue-eyed grass, gardener’s garters) to cries from the heart (love-lies-bleeding, forget-me-not). No such names can be forced; they either come naturally, straight from the human condition, or they don’t come at all.
Nor should they. Not every plant has a common name, and not every plant needs one. We accepted rhododendron, chrysanthemum, gladiolus, begonia, fuchsia, hydrangea, clematis, and many more Latin names without protest, and without sugar-coated alternatives. (I shudder to think what might have been foisted on us.) So please, no more mountain-star-fairy-lily-bells. If a plant needs a common name, if we find it worthy of one, we’ll give it one. And it will stick.
In the meantime, we’ll be perfectly happy with the names plants already have, even if they’re obscure to us at first. Including Calochortus, Ipheion, Ixiolirion, Triteleia, Zephyranthes, and all the other quite musical names supposed to be too much for us to handle. H